The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Why Is the Guitar So Hard to Learn?
One reason learning to play guitar is hard is because new players are asking their fingers and hands to perform complex tasks that don’t come naturally. It gets easier with practice, just as learning the motor movements required to write with a pencil is difficult for a child but becomes second nature.
Sometimes the physical issues that come with learning guitar pose the most challenge to new players. These range from fingertip pain caused by fretting notes on steel strings, to sore hands from trying to stretch to form chord shapes, to neck and back pain from the weight of the instrument around your shoulders.
Then there are the mental challenges. Memorizing notes, chords and scales may seem difficult at first. But again, if you put your mind to it, you can learn all the basic chords needed to learn guitar in no time.
In this article, we will look at many of the common issues that make learning the guitar so frustrating as well as some solutions to those problems.
1. The Guitar Is Physically Hard to Play
New players often experience frustration because it seems impossible to make their hands and fingers perform the tasks expected to learn guitar. Newbies may not form chord shapes correctly, or they may struggle to press the strings to the fretboard. In worst-case situations, they may experience pain in their wrists, shoulders, or back.
First a heads up: If you are experiencing pain during or after practicing guitar, my first piece of advice is to talk to your doctor about it. Believe it or not, you can injure yourself playing guitar. Most commonly, these are overuse injuries that require a little rest and ice, but in some situations, they can be very serious. Better safe than sorry. Talk to your doctor.
To give yourself a good chance of avoiding these issues, learn to play with good form and posture. I always suggest that new guitar players practice guitar using classical guitar playing position—no matter what style of music they play. Classical musicians use this posture because it puts them in the most efficient and ergonomic position.
Many new players do the exact opposite. They play with sloppy form, or while holding the instrument in a bad position. Because of this, they struggle to fret chords and notes correctly and their progress comes to a halt.
There is one very important thing to realize about learning guitar or any new motor skill: you get better at what you practice. That means, if you practice a skill correctly you will get better at it. However, it also means if you practice a skill incorrectly, you will only get better at doing it incorrectly.
2. Learning Guitar Chords Is Too Hard
Learning guitar chords is tough for two reasons. First, you have to remember where your fingers go. Then, you have to make your hand do what your brain is telling it to do. This alone makes many new players quit the guitar. It might seem hard, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you ever had an issue.
You can make your life easier if you don’t load yourself up with a bunch of chords and expect to learn them all at once. Instead, try mastering two or three a week, and don’t move on until you get them down. If you work hard at it, you can probably memorize more than three chord shapes every week. However, your physical limitations as a new player may slow you down.
Remember, you get better at what you practice. From a guitar perspective, this means you have to take things slowly. If you are having trouble fretting a chord correctly, keep at it until you get it right. Don’t move on, happy enough that you can play it with sloppy form. That will only lead to problems you need to correct later.
3. Guitar Scales Are Confusing and Difficult
Guitar scales aren’t just hard to play; they are also intimidating for new players. There are so many of them, and each one has several patterns to learn. Where do you even start?
First off, if you are new to guitar, I would suggest you don’t even worry about scales for a while. You can and should practice dexterity drills like the Chromatic Exercise, but in the beginning, I would put my focus on mastering all the most important open chords and barre chords.
After a while, when you are ready to learn scales, there is no better method than repetition. Start with the major scale and learn all five patterns and how they fit together. Then play them over and over (and over and over). Running through scales is not only a great way to learn and get comfortable with scale patterns, but it also helps you work on both fretting and picking hand dexterity.
Repetition is the key when it comes to learning guitar chords and scales. You can even practice the motor movements of playing scales with your guitar unplugged while you are watching television. Just remember, you get better at what you practice, so always practice with good form.
4. Music Theory Is Boring
It sure is. It is also incredibly useful. Once you have the hang of physically playing the instrument, the study of music theory is well worth your time. It teaches you the why of music and helps you put together many of the pieces that make little sense.
But none of that matters if you’d rather cover yourself in bacon and wrestle a bear than sit down and learn the stuff.
The key is to learn in bite-sized chunks. Find a good, comprehensive book, website, or video series, and work your way through it a little at a time. You might go over one new concept a day, or once a week. Move at whatever pace you like, but keep moving.
Many people find it easier to learn this way, anyway. Small pieces of information are easier to process and remember. Once you fully understand something, move on to something new.
One benefit of hiring a guitar teacher is that they will guide you through this process. A good teacher will move you along at your own pace and make sure you understand what’s happening before you advance.
If you are learning by yourself, you will have to arrange this on your own. It takes a little more discipline, but you can absolutely teach yourself music theory.
5. Learning Songs on Guitar Is Tough
No matter how you go about it, learning new music is tough when you are just starting out on guitar. Learning to read sheet music is an adventure on its own. However, most guitar players can get by learning new songs with tablature, a system of notating music that is super easy to learn and use.
Even so, it’s a slog, and depending on what you are trying to learn, it might seem impossible.
I remember looking at the tab from a Van Halen song when I was first starting out and thinking I will never, ever, be able to understand it. It was the same intimidating feeling I got as a first-grader when I would look at my sixth-grade neighbors’ math textbook.
But I did learn how to do math at a sixth-grade level (I say proudly) and, though it was quite a bit harder, I did eventually learn Van Halen songs. You will too, so go easy on yourself.
Also, understand that I didn’t start with Van Halen. I started with easy songs with chords I could play. Find some of those songs and start learning them. Many famous bands like AC/DC, Green Day, and even Metallica use very simple chords throughout many of their most famous riffs.
6. Better Guitar Players Are Intimidating
New guitar players often feel like they aren’t progressing fast enough. They may compare themselves to their friends, who are more skilled. Or, they may even look at famous guitarists and feel like it is impossible ever to get that good. This discourages many new players and drives them to quit.
You need to flip this one around. Players who are better than you shouldn’t make you feel bad. You can learn from these people. Whether they are your friends, the big-shot guitarists around town, or superstar guitarists, they set the standard for you to meet and exceed. There is no need to feel intimidated or frustrated. To get where they are today, they once stood where you are. They are proof you can do it too!
From a practical standpoint, ask yourself how badly you want to get good at guitar. If you only want to play a little to impress people at parties, there is no reason to care about anyone being better than you. However, if you want to be great at guitar (or anything else) you need to put in the work.
Are you willing to give up television, video games, movies, or bumming around with your buddies so you can spend more time practicing the guitar? If you plan to compare yourself to the best in the world, the answer had better be yes.
Yes, You Can Learn to Play Guitar!
Of course you can! It is simply a matter of putting in the time and effort. For some people, it comes easier than others. They may have a better aptitude for music, or they may have more free time. But that isn’t any reason to give up on your own quest to learn to play guitar.
Even if you learn at a slower pace, even if you take extra time to teach your fingers to obey the commands of your brain, or even if you only have a few minutes every day to practice, don’t give up.
Time is going to pass, anyway. Think of the progress you can make in a year!
Yes, learning to play guitar is hard sometimes, but the result is worthwhile.